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Reconciliation Alive Despite Health Care Summit

Senate Democrats say they see no need to abandon the idea of using reconciliation to pass health care reform this year just because President Barack Obama has scheduled a bipartisan summit next week to try to break the impasse on Capitol Hill.

Obama’s nationally televised health care summit is set for Feb. 25 — and the president has said his goal is to use the discussion to jump-start a bipartisan way forward on the health care overhaul. The issue has been idling in the Senate since late January, when the election of Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) to succeed the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) gave Republicans the extra seat they needed to sustain a filibuster.

Given the unified GOP opposition to their health care effort, Senate Democrats argued just before departing for the Presidents Day recess that Obama’s summit is no reason to shelve reconciliation as a potential strategy. The tactic would allow Democrats pass certain aspects of health care reform with just 51 votes.

“I think it should be constantly pursued,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said Thursday when asked whether Democrats should take a break from drafting a reconciliation bill until after Obama’s summit.

“I think the Republicans are pretty committed to the notion that obstructing everything that President Obama would like to accomplish is very key to their base and their political success,” Whitehouse added. “I don’t see them departing from that strategy.”

Neither Democrats nor Republicans seem to have much faith that the summit will produce a bipartisan agreement; the forum comes after nearly a yearlong effort to enact a bill.

Democrats highly doubt the event will soften Republican opposition, and Republicans are suspicious of Obama’s motives. GOP lawmakers worry that the president has no real interest in bipartisanship and simply wants to use the summit to paint the GOP as obstructionist before a nationally televised audience.

Senate Republican Conference Vice Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) suggested that Obama needs to be willing to start from scratch on health care reform.

“If he just wants to talk about the House-passed bill and the Senate-passed bill and that’s it, it’s going to be very difficult, I think, to get that conversation going,” Murkowski said. “When you extend an invitation for everybody to come and sit down and talk, let’s understand what it is that we’re talking about.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and other Democratic liberals have been very public in urging Senate Democrats to craft a reconciliation bill to salvage a comprehensive health care bill. But Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and Senate Democratic leaders, with an eye toward the November elections, have shifted the focus to jobs, at least temporarily.

Still, Democratic Senate staffers continue to explore a reconciliation bill, although how it would be used is still in question. There are serious doubts about whether the House would approve the Senate-passed health care bill even with promises that a reconciliation bill would address many of that chamber’s concerns.

Some moderate Senate Democrats have already announced their opposition to a reconciliation bill regardless of what is in it. But others appear more flexible. Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), a centrist who argued throughout last year against pursuing a 51-vote strategy, said there is no reason Democrats should turn away from the option, summit or not.

“As a practical matter, the president’s summit is going to come — will happen sooner than any efforts to put together a very slimmed-down reconciliation provision on health care,” Carper said.

“We should go forward with the president’s summit, and maybe that will help inform — if the summit doesn’t bear much fruit — maybe the conversation flowing from the summit would better inform what should be in a very narrow reconciliation provision.”

Democratic leaders were on the verge of reconciling the House and Senate health care packages when Brown’s victory sent the effort into free fall. Brown campaigned on being the 41st Republican to help kill the Democrats’ health care agenda.

Senate Republicans complained throughout 2009 about what they charged was a lack of bipartisanship on the effort. No GOP Senator voted in favor of four procedural motions or final passage of the Senate bill.

After Obama announced plans to hold the summit, the Republicans sought ground rules to ensure the event was, in their view, more than just a political exercise.

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said Obama’s intentions for the forum would become apparent “based upon his willingness to set the stage for a productive seminar.” Burr supported his party’s attempt to negotiate the terms of the event but said Republicans should attend no matter what. “I don’t think that it’s moving the ball down the field not to go.”

Among the possible preconditions for attending the summit was a request from House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) that reconciliation be taken off the table. GOP leaders in both chambers have indicated they would like Obama to start from scratch on health care reform as a potential condition for their attendance.

Democrats have said the ground rules underscore that the GOP isn’t really interested in forging a compromise on health care.

Last week, Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who just introduced a resolution to weaken the filibuster, said Obama has acted in “good faith” by calling the summit, only to be met with more obstinacy from the GOP.

“I think the president’s proposal is meritorious,” Harkin said. “Now, it seems to me that Mr. Boehner has injected a new objection to this, saying, ‘No, we won’t come unless you want to start from scratch.’ I just don’t think that’s reasonable.”

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